★ Hidden Skills #1 – Leaving Books Unfinished

Three types of hidden skills

I believe there are three types of skills that most of us don't recognize as such. The first type are skills that seem too minor to be "worth" anything in most contexts, like being able to pick the exact amount of spaghetti you need for three people. The second type are the ones that are just not fully business-compatible and quietly get self-censored because they would never end up on a résumé. Who cares if you're a good storyteller if you want to work in accounting, right?

The third type are skills we don't understand. We don't see them because we attribute their effects to chance, or our overall personality. For example, the skill to connect with people that are very different from ourselves. We neglect these skills because their nature seems very unlike other skills we have: we don't know how we learned them, they seemingly can't be built up (if positive) or dropped (if perceived unhelpful), and there's little conversation about them (as measured in self-help books and shining heroes who mastered them). Yet these skills exist, and they work for us whether or not we understand how they work.

All of these skills are worth exploring: learning about them is not only helpful to understand people better, it's also plenty of fun. In addition, some of these skills are really valuable. Which is why I'd like to start collecting a few on this site. The first one is about reading.

Excursion: How I read

My relationship to reading books is vivacious and volatile. There are phases in which I buy and read books by the handful, easily get lost in great stories and fascinating ideas, and have a hard time to put my Kindle away to deal with life. There are other phases in which I don't read books at all and my thoughts wander off whenever I try to sit down and read. Also, I'm often so busy that I forget reading exists.

In general, this relationship is working out well for me. Books are there for me when I need them, and leave me alone when I'm not interested (we're talking about books here, okay). I've realized that there are some situations that put me off the current book and push me into a "no reading" phase. The most common one is when I'm trying to read a book that I have a hard time finishing. My self-discipline wants me to complete it, but my inner self is doubtful whether it's worth the effort. Hence, I guess, I had to develop the skill to leave books unfinished.

Leaving books unfinished

The first hidden skill I'd like to draw your attention to is the skill to leave books unfinished. To some people it's natural; they forget about books they never finished. To others it's a very hard thing to do—the fear of missing out on a late revelation or the plot finally coming together is a strong motivator. And so is the feeling of leaving unfinished business.

The benefits, however, are substantial. Consciously deciding to stop reading a book frees up time and mental energy to do (or read) something else. Saying no means saying yes to something else, as the oft-quoted phrase goes. It's also about psycho-hygiene. Some books weigh on you because of their length or the complexity of their language as well as their hard-to-deal-with content, psychological depth or lack of quality. Letting go of these gives you a certain sense of freedom, coupled with the satisfaction of having made an active decision—which feels much better than feeling disappointed in yourself because of a lack of self-discipline.

So if you consider this skill valuable, you can do these things to practice it:

  • Try to read a bad book every now and then to make it easier for you to put it away for good
  • Buy popular science books where satisfaction comes from understanding the fundamental concept on the first 70-100 pages and reading on provides only diminishing marginal utility
  • Go digital and buy ebooks that are mostly out of sight when you don't read them anymore
  • Create a book pipeline (as a list or an anti-library of books you own but haven't read) to remind you of the compromise of reading one book versus reading another